Flu vaccine brands struggle for recognition even when in fab fighting form

The good news in flu vaccines this year is that they were effective, well-covered by the media and increased sales for several Big Pharmas. The bad news? No one knows their names.

More than 79% of consumers couldn't name the brand of flu shot they received at the doctor's office this year, according to a new survey by MediaMiser and Treato analyzing consumer sentiment post-flu season.

That might not be encouraging for Sanofi ($SNY), which makes Fluzone, and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), which makes Fluarix and FluLaval. Both pharma companies ran DTC advertising efforts in the fall. In Sanofi's case, the marketing centered on the importance of flu vaccines for seniors using spokeswoman actress Judith Light, while GSK's general campaign "Choose More Choose Four" highlighted its move this year to only distribute quadrivalent vaccines.

Of course, there are other factors that flu vaccine makers contend with that can make DTC marketing hit or miss. Healthcare providers sometimes get vaccines direct from pharma manufacturers, but more often they get them from first or secondary distributors, who are less concerned about filling brand name orders and more concerned with just filling orders, period.

The advertised brands did get some notice in the MediaMiser-Treato study. Fluzone High Dose was named by 3.7% of people who knew what brand they received, second to sibling Fluzone at 5.5%. Fluarix was third at 3.2%, followed by a tie at 2.2% between FluMist, from AstraZeneca's ($AZN) MedImmune unit, and Fluvirin, from Seqirus, the former Novartis ($NVS) flu vaccine business now owned by CSL.

The study also looked at news coverage of the flu brands. The brands most mentioned in the news and on blogs were FluMist, Fluzone and Fluzone High Dose, accounting for almost 90% of online brand mentions. Fluarix and Fluvirin were distant fourth place finishers with each garnering 4% of news mentions.

However, that lack of brand recognition didn't seem to affect sales. GSK reported that U.S. vaccine sales grew 24% in 2015 "driven mainly by a strong performance from Fluarix/FluLaval as a result of the conversion to the Quadrivalent formulation." Sanofi also reported strong sales in 2015 for flu vaccines, noting a record year "reflecting successful U.S. differentiation strategy" with 66 million doses sold in the U.S. and almost all of them (96%) from its differentiated vaccines Fluzone High Dose, Fluzone Quadrivalent, and Fluzone Intra-Dermal.

The report noted that despite government citings of vastly improved effectiveness this year--59% versus 13% last season--plus online media reports "playing up the importance and safety" of getting vaccinated, online consumer chatter was "mostly focused on potential side effects of the vaccine."

As the report summarized: "Apparently it's going to take more than positive press coverage to convince some consumers that getting the flu shot is worth it."

- read full report (PDF)